The Pro Football Hall of Fame is welcoming the Class of 2022 to Canton for Enshrinement Week, and it will be great to see former players like Cliff Branch get their long-deserved place in pro football immortality on Saturday. But it's not too early to take a look at who could be a part of the next HOF class. If you'll indulge me, I would like to offer you my predictions for the modern-era members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2023. It should be an interesting group because like this year's class, I don't think there are automatic slam dunks in the same vein as, say, Peyton Manning or Calvin Johnson, who were enshrined last year. There are some extremely strong candidates to consider, though, so let's break it down.
Joe Thomas, offensive tackle (Cleveland browns, 2007-2017)
Thomas started his NFL career by going fishing with his father instead of attending the 2007 draft. And you already had to love him. The dude never took plays off and spent his entire career with the Browns. He was a 10-time Pro Bowler and six-time first-team All-Pro. I mean, he played 10,363 consecutive offensive snaps, which is believed to be the longest such streak in NFL history. Of every person on this list, I would be the most shocked if Thomas didn't make the Class of 2023. But I've been shocked before.
Darrelle Revis, cornerback (New York Jets, 2007-2012, 2015-2016; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2013; New England Patriots, 2014; Kansas City Chiefs, 2017)
Revis dominated during his era, shutting down receivers on Revis Island. He earned four first-team All-Pro nods and, like Thomas, is a member of the NFL 2010s All-Decade Team. I have him as a near-lock (instead of a lock) because I've learned over the years that I can't predict with certainty what the Hall of Fame voters will do.
Like Thomas and Revis, seven-time Pro Bowl defensive end Dwight Freeney will be eligible for the first time in 2023, but with nine-time edge rusher DeMarcus Ware not getting in on his first try earlier this year, I'm not confident Freeney is going to be part of the Class of 2023.
Rounding out the class
Torry Holt, wide receiver (St. Louis Rams, 1999-2008; Jacksonville Jaguars, 2009)
There are a number of great receivers eligible this year. In fact, Holt, Andre Johnson and Reggie Wayne were all modern-era finalists for the Class of 2022. Holt was a key member of a Rams team that made it to two Super Bowls in three seasons, winning one. He was one of the biggest game-breakers in the league, leading the NFL in receiving yards twice.
Andre Johnson, wide receiver (Houston Texans, 2003-2014; Indianapolis Colts, 2015; Tennessee Titans, 2016)
I'm not sure we'll see all three of the full-time receivers who were finalists this year make it in 2023, but I do believe voters will put Holt and Johnson in the Hall of Fame. Both players dominated during their time. Johnson earned more first-team All-Pro nods than Holt (two to one) and didn't have the offense that Torry played in for the majority of his career. Johnson never posted double-digit touchdowns in a season, but that in no way is indicative of his skills.
DeMarcus Ware, outside linebacker (Dallas Cowboys, 2005-2013; Denver Broncos, 2014-2016)
Ware was one of the 15 modern-era finalists in 2022, his first year of eligibility. But you know ... the voters. It seems like they feel that "first-ballot" classification is so precious, they're hesitant to give it out. But Ware belongs in the Hall of Fame. He led the league in sacks twice and finished with 138.5 in his career (ninth most since sacks became an official stat in 1982). Clearly, he was one of the most dominant pass rushers of his era.
Should get in but ... you know
Steve Smith Sr., wide receiver (Carolina Panthers, 2001-2013; Baltimore Ravens, 2014-16)
Once again, I would like to direct you to the words of Chris Wesseling, who put out the definitive piece on why Steve Smith Sr. should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I know I might be biased because Steve is my friend and NFL Network colleague, but it really bums me out that it could take him a while to get in. I have Holt and Johnson as the two receivers going into the HOF next year, but that is my prediction for what the voters will do and not a reflection of what I would do. Steve ranks eighth all time in receiving yards (14,371). That's the second most of any pass-catcher not in Canton at the moment (behind only Larry Fitzgerald, who's not yet eligible). Steve's brash persona might have rubbed some voters the wrong way, and perhaps he'll have to wait because of it. I'm not happy about it. He should be in.
Devin Hester, returner/wide receiver (Chicago Bears, 2006-2013; Atlanta Falcons, 2014-15; Baltimore Ravens, 2016; Seattle Seahawks, 2016)
Hester is the greatest return man of all time. Nobody disputes this. But history has not been on the side of special teams performers when it comes to Pro Football Hall of Fame entry. Coaches always talk about winning three phases of the game: offense, defense and, yep, you guessed it -- special teams. But the gatekeepers of Canton obviously aren't listening. I would have made Hester a first-ballot Hall of Famer this year. But I think voters are going to make him wait, which is wrong.
Patrick Willis, linebacker (San Francisco 49ers, 2007-2014)
I've never received an adequate answer for why Willis has yet to receive a gold jacket. He was a first-team All-Pro in five of the eight seasons he played professional football. Was his career not long enough for you? I don't know if Patrick needs a better publicist, but he needs to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a finalist for the first time in 2022, his third year of eligibility. He should get in with the next class, but I won't get my hopes up.
One more player I would vote in
Chris Johnson, running back (Tennessee Titans, 2008-2013; New York Jets, 2014; Arizona Cardinals, 2015-2017)
Johnson was the NFL Offensive Player of the Year in 2009, earning the nickname CJ2K after he (checks notes) rushed for 2,000 yards. He's one of eight players in league history to reach 2,000 rushing yards in a season and is considered one of the fastest guys in NFL history. He was electric. Just a marvelous player. But running backs aren't valued like they used to be and that's probably going to hurt him here.
By the way, my HOF class of Steve Smith Sr., Devin Hester, Patrick Willis and Chris Johnson would be amazing. I'm just saying. I'd also throw in Sterling Sharpe as my Senior pick and let's go. Maybe I'll have my own party in Canton.
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